*Please enjoy this guest blog from My, a sweet friend of the empower couple!*
I am a proud first generation, Vietnamese-American woman. I grew up in a very strict household with my two parents and two sisters in a small town in Ohio that didn’t quite embrace diversity. I struggled with learning about two entirely different cultures; Vietnamese culture and Western culture. However, both have similar outlooks about the ‘ideal’ woman which is largely crafted by the media in both Vietnam and the United States- being thin, young, and sexy. Unfortunately, being a Vietnamese woman and meeting the criteria to be thin in the Vietnamese community is surprisingly more difficult than in the eyes of Westerners. Vietnamese-American women are incessantly body-shamed, particularly within their own community. I am going to speak for the Vietnamese community as that is only what I know and I prefer to not generalize across all ethnic groups in Asia.
The pressures of being a thin woman in the Vietnamese community is very difficult and quite sad. Personally, I have had a life-long struggle about my family’s perception of my weight. I have been considered the “fat child” in my family most of my life. After looking at my photo, most of you are probably rolling your eyes. Just wait, my story gets better. As I’ve gotten older, the more comments I receive from the Vietnamese community is more about my weight than about what is new with me. I had a period of time where I was called fat from 5th grade to 8th grade, slimmed down from 9th grade to senior year of high school, and now ever since college it’s back to being the “fat kid”. Notice how I have not forgotten that? I’m not going to lie, I really enjoyed not listening to the Vietnamese community berate me about how I needed to lose weight during my high school years. Unfortunately, my time of respite was very short lived. If there was one thing I wish the Vietnamese community would not have immigrated over to America with, it’d be their attitudes and remarks about a woman’s body image. I digress.
When I was about 12 years old, my aunt who has only visited me once my entire life, decided to come up next to me while I was eating dinner and say, “My, once you’re finished with dinner take a lap around the house.” So what did I do? I thought, “hell no, I’m not going to run. I’ve always hated running and I’m certainly not going to take that from an aunt who I just met”. Instead of sticking up for myself I ran to my room, locked the door, wrote in my journal, and actively sobbed the remainder of the night. This statement was one of many I had received over the course of my life that made me feel as if I was an ugly woman. I had very low self-esteem and actually believed I was ugly for a ridiculous amount of time (like up until I was 23 years old and I’m now 25 years old). I always made it a point to dress nicely in public as I wanted my style of clothing choice to be a distraction away from my body. It didn’t help that I grew up in a town that wasn’t accepting of other cultures and I definitely wasn’t bringing any of the boys to my yard if you know what I’m sayin’.
Another memory I have was when my parents looked at me and said with the most genuine concern in their voices, “My, if you don’t lose weight no man will ever want to marry you”. I love my parents so much, but I had to constantly remind myself that they grew up in a different culture than I have where a statement such as that was accepted. I received comments like that from strangers when I visited Vietnam several years ago while they continued to feed me copious amounts of delicious food. Yes, I was confused too, but I didn’t care and kept on eating. The dilemma I faced was that I was too “fat” in the eyes of the Vietnamese, yet I didn’t have large enough breasts to fill out a bikini top or thick enough thighs to fill out my size double zero pants. Vietnamese men are allowed to be whatever weight they want to be and they have zero consequences. How is that fair?!
Me in 2009
This topic has always been difficult for me to discuss with friends who are not Asian because my weight is considered an acceptable weight for THEIR culture. My culture wants me to be toothpick skinny with long hair. I have gained weight over the past two years and cut my hair drastically short. I call it my happy weight and rebellious hair. I’m so incredibly fortunate that I did not end up suffering from severe depression or any type of eating disorder. My journal was my form of self-therapy when I was struggling with these conflicting cultural views at a young age and it helped me to continue to persevere through all of the negativity. Unfortunately, not everyone finds journaling a beneficial form of therapy. I am currently getting my Master’s in social work in hopes to become a licensed medical social worker in the hospice setting. Even though I chose a different path in social work, I have networked with many licensed social workers who provide therapy and counseling. They have shared with me free or inexpensive ways for those seeking support for eating disorders or depression. Something I never knew before entering the social work field was how many services that were available in my community. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to find support and develop healthy coping mechanisms that work for the individual. For those who are seeking support and are in college, check your counseling department because they should offer counseling services at no cost or a low cost and if you don’t want services from them, they can refer you to local agencies. If you are not in school, contact the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and they can assist you with finding the appropriate services for you. You can also visit the HHS website at http://www.hhs.gov/programs/ and the NEDA website at http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org. There are treatment providers, hotlines you can call, and support groups of individuals who are going through the same thing as you that can help you through this journey. I suggest shopping around to find the best match for you because after all you are the one benefiting from these services! I think something I learned over the years is that the most effective coping mechanism is to surround yourself with people who will support you and continue to love you even at your worst. Ultimately, you are the one who has control over your life.
Me in 2016
Since gaining weight over the past two years, I have never felt more confident in my appearance in my entire life than I do now. I have been working out and toning up my body to maintain my current weight ONLY because I am tired of buying new dress pants. They’re expensive! I look back at old high school pictures and realize how skinny I was and that the Vietnamese community saw that weight as the ‘ideal image’. It saddens me that that is a part of my culture’s views.
My happiness is more important than how others perceive my body.